Twain, Bibi, Obama and the Jews

Tom Segev
Tom Segev
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Tom Segev
Tom Segev

Mark Twain despised the Arabs and Islam in general. He thought they were "filthy, brutish, ignorant, unprogressive [and] superstitious." That is a good reason for Israel's prime minister to give Twain's book as a gift to the president of the United States.

Netanyahu took historian Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador-designate to Washington, with him on his trip. Oren wrote a fascinating book on American attitudes toward the Middle East, in which he says the Muslims disgusted Twain: "No number of negative adjectives, it seems, could express Twain's disgust." (Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present).

Netanyahu and ambassador Oren evidently thought Barack Hussein Obama would like that. It is lucky that they did not buy him Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, which David Ben-Gurion read in Hebrew before he turned 13.

The creator of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn visited the Holy Land in 1867. He hoped to realize one thousand and one nights of fantasies on his travels, but instead found himself in the company of dull middle-aged Americans, which made him describe the trip as "a funeral excursion without a corpse."

Had his words been written today, it is doubtful whether Twain would be counted among Israel's friends. In his own humorous way, he did not like Jews very much, either.

Twain met Theodor Herzl twice, and even considered translating his play, "The New Ghetto," into English. In Vienna, where he met Sigmund Freud, Twain encountered anti-Semitic incitement. Some people scorned him there, mistakenly believing him to be a Jew. The rumor was based on his first name, Samuel, and his big nose. Twain responded with an acrid essay in which he denounced the Dreyfus affair, among other things.

Ambassador-designate Oren wrote with extreme caution that in his essay, Twain "nearly defeated his purpose by mentioning the Jews' alleged love of money and their reluctance to serve in their country in war."

If his book was deemed an appropriate gift from Netanyahu to Obama, it must have been because, according to Oren, Twain "later apologized for these slurs - [and] redeemed himself by praising the Jewish intellect." He wrote: "It is a marvelous race - by long odds the most marvelous the world has produced, I suppose."

Twain was a satirist, so it is to be hoped that Obama will take another Twain statement - that Jews should not be permitted to assemble in a country of their own - in this spirit. "It will not be well to let that race find out its strength," Twain wrote. "If the horses knew theirs, we should not ride anymore."

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